Thursday, March 19, 2015

Piano, piano

I’m still trying to get my head around the anti-gay legislation that passed a couple weeks ago in Arkansas. 

A quick history.  Fayetteville, where the University of Arkansas is located, passed an anti-discrimination ordinance last August 19.  Almost immediately, money started pouring in from folks like the infamous Christian media family, the Duggars (“19 Kids and Counting”), to pay for a fear and loathing campaign.  Shades of the California Prop. 8 campaign, pushed particularly hard by the Mormons and Knights of Columbus.  In Arkansas, where evangelicals are the major homophobic force, the pitch was even dirtier.  According to Christian mama Michelle Duggar,

I don’t believe the citizens of Fayetteville would want males with past child predator convictions that claim they are female to have a legal right to enter private areas that are reserved for women and girls.  

The law that was aimed to protect not just LGBT people, but other minorities as well, and not just the transgender people the religious right have now focused their particular loathing on, was repealed, 52 to 48.  

Turns out that was only a warm-up.  Arkansas then went on to pass Arkansas Senate Bill 202, with the deliciously cynical name, “Intrastate Commerce Improvement Act.”  And how is commerce improved, you ask?  This bill, now law, prohibits any municipality in the state from passing a law protecting minorities specifically.  The argument?  Christians, whose religious rights are trampeled on when they are forced to serve gays and lesbians, would not want to settle in Arkansas with cumbersome laws like this, you see.  By protecting their right to discriminate, business can only flourish in the long run.

It’s an idea whose time has come.  People are freaking out over the possibility that the Supreme Court may legalize same-sex marriage in all fifty states.  Once that happens, it will be hard to explain to your kids that you know gays are inferior because if they weren’t they would be allowed to get married and have their relationships recognized by the state.  No parent should have to explain that to their kids, right?  At least with this anti-pro-gay ordinance, you can assure your kids that you don’t have to worry about sitting next to one of them at a lunch counter.  Or be waited on by one of them.  Or if you do, and you don’t like the service, you can at least tell the restaurant owner and get his ass fired for being gay.

And so other states are following Arkansas’s lead.  A similar ordinance, identical to the Arkansas law right down to the “Commerce protection” label, have been passed in West Virginia and Texas. 

And if you are in the American majority and get your news from Fox or CNN, you can be excused for not knowing about this.  Neither network covered the news.  MSNBC did, but they are part of the lamestream media and only hardliner lefties listen to them anyway.

This too shall pass.  It’s merely a bump in the road.  A reminder that gay liberation is a long hard slog and there will be many more setbacks before equal rights and gay dignity are universal values.

I have finally begun to tackle my out-of-control personal files of several decades of old stuff.  I’ve got utility and phone bills back to the 80s and that’s just for starters.  So I’m trying to get ruthless and clean.  It isn’t easy.

I keep coming across things I just don’t want to throw away.  Like this letter I wrote to an unknown student some twenty-two years ago.  I was teaching in an English program at Keio University in Japan and we were reorganizing the courses.  We put the word out that we wanted student input for workshops we might offer, hoping to get a sense of the kinds of things students were interested in talking about.  My colleague, Yoshiko Takahashi, came to me in some distress over a letter she got from one of her students.  “I just don’t know how to respond to this!” she said.  I told her I would take care of it.  Here’s my response:

To the Student in Professor Takahashi’s class who is afraid of gays:
 I have just seen your response to the request for new workshops.  On that response sheet, you have written that you would like a workshop to teach people how to “escape from gays.”  You included my name, in parentheses, as an example of one of the people in that category.
 I don’t know who you are, and I don’t need to know your name.  I am asking Professor Takahashi to give this letter to you.  (Or if she doesn’t know who you are, to give this letter to the whole class so you will be sure to read it.)  I cannot tell whether you are serious or joking, but in either case, since you suggested I am one of those people you would like to run away from, I would like to say something to you.
 Gay people are everywhere.  Many of your classmates and many of your teachers are gay.  Some will readily tell you this; others consider this a part of their private life which they choose not to share with you; some are ashamed of being gay.
 The world is changing, however, and more and more gay people are insisting on being recognized as both gay and human, and deserving of the respect that is due all human beings.  It will become increasingly difficult for you to “escape from gays” as you go through life.
 The question is, why would you want to?  If you are gay yourself, and ashamed of it, you will come to accept yourself in time and realize there is no more reason to be ashamed of yourself than if you are blind, or left-handed, or very short or very tall or in any way “different” from the majority of people.  If you are not gay, you need to realize most gay people have no interest in bothering you; there is nothing to “escape” from!
 If you suggested this idea as a joke, you should realize that the suggestion is not a joke to gay people.  On the contrary, it is hurtful.  Think how you would feel if you were living in a foreign country, and somebody suggested that they wanted advice on how to “escape from Japanese.”  You would then feel the oppression of bigotry and you would understand why this is not a joke.
 If you are serious, and you are suggesting that people who are gay should be removed from your sight, let me urge you to think very carefully what you are asking.  Do you also want to separate yourself from people that are different from you in other ways?  Are you afraid of people of other races?  Other religions?  Are you afraid of handicapped people?  Or is your prejudice only against people whose sexual and emotional feelings are directed toward people of the same sex?  Do you really think we should put people in jail, or in a hospital, or on a desert island somewhere because they love differently?
 Gay people, like any people who seem strange and different to you now, can turn out to be people you know, people you like, people who can teach you things, people you care about, and people you can live with, if only you take the trouble to find out more about them.
 Please take that time.  Learn about gay people, as you learn about people from other cultures.  There is no need to run from the blind, no reason to run from the French or from Chinese or from Africans, no reason to run from people with blue eyes or people who wear strange clothes or people who are gay.  The world is big enough for us all.
 You don’t need to be afraid.  As I said, I don’t know who you are and I am not going to try to find out.  But if you and your friends would like to come talk to me, I would be happy to talk with you about this or any other subject.  My office hours are Tuesday and Thursday afternoons between 2:30 and 4:30.
 Yours truly,

I never heard from this student and have no idea of whether this letter even registered on his radar. Gay students on my campus were so closeted in the early 90s in Japan that my being openly gay worked against me.  Students who wanted to keep their gay secret avoided me like the plague, at least on campus.  Within the decade they began to get noticeably better, however, and not too many years after this, our English Department actually made a film about coming out.  

It's useful, I think, to look back.  Finding this letter put the Arkansas setback in perspective.  And reminded me of that wonderful Italian saying:

Piano, piano, si va lontano - If you're going a long way, take it slow.

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